It goes like this: You have made or saved or borrowed a nice chunk of money and have decided to invest in yourself. After all, people have told you to invest in things you believe in and YOU believe in YOU!
In any case, people have been telling you they would love to see your art on _______. Those several or a dozen resounding voices start to sound like a whole lot of resounding voices. Everyone you’ve told thinks it’s a great idea. It’s ambitious but so are you! You look into production. You visualize yourself calling up retailers and people handing you money for the _______ that you now offer. It will be an enormous success! Nagging doubts be damned!
So you make the thing. You are reasonably if not totally stoked with your new product. People are going to love them! You make your labels and marketing materials, prepare your media campaigns, and so on. It’s on your website in your shop. You’ve invested almost (if not entirely) your last cent into it. Maybe you even borrowed extra funds to push through the final stages. You are proud of your hard work, as well you should be. It’s been nerve wracking and a bit hand wringing. You usually don’t spend so much money all at once, it’s like your hemorrhaging it, but you’ve got to spend money to make money, they say.
Then GO day arrives. You release it. You have the big show. The event. The moment. You sell a smaller percentage of what you thought you would… Returns are sparse and a large portion of your costs are still outstanding. It’s a bit unexpected but that’s ok! There’s mail order! Wholesale! Retail!
But that doesn’t go the way you’d hoped either… It’s a tough game and a rough road, trying to create or start a business – if even a side business to the main business. You find yourself calling or emailing people to sell them stuff they’ve never seen and trying to still feel confident in it and maybe you can hire someone to do it but hiring someone seems like another money drain when really you want to go back to making your art, when you’re done curling up and crying, and you start to feel like a very small and lonely fish in a very big and lonely sea.
Those people – o those finicky people – who said they’d love to own that thing… they buy a few but fewer than you expected. In the end (but lo, this is just the beginning) little money remains, you’ve got a bruised ego, dashed hopes, feelings of failure, a sense of embarrassment, questions about your life decisions, maybe you should never have gotten into this business at all and by ‘business,’ I mean following your dreams. Maybe you should have just been a carpet salesperson. Or an accountant (not that there’s anything wrong with either of those endeavors).
Why, we ask ourselves, did we make this big mistake…
I share all this because I’ve been there and I imagine that, if you haven’t been already, that you might be there at some point or another too. Recently I was packing up my home and finding detritus of past projects. It’s like, at best, one in ten rocket ships make to the moon of our dreams. The other 9 endeavors never took off and some crashed and burned before even arriving at the launching pad.
First, I want to tell you this: IT’S OK. There really are no mistakes. Mistakes are this: we stub our toe, fall in a pit, whatever – and we DON’T GET OUT. We walk around cursing. It is imperative that we keep moving forwards. One of the tough parts of being an artist is that we really are on our own quite often. We are making up a thing and then ascribing a value to the thing and then hoping that other people will pay us the value we’ve ascribed. We are the ones who make ourselves get up in the morning and look again at that half-finished mess of a masterpiece we are creating, even if sometimes that mess feels like our own lives.
I’d like to address a few of those pieces of the inner emotional response to some of the bigger mistakes we make and share some thoughts on how to address them.
We look around and it seems, in our more self-loathing moments, that everyone else is doing better, is more successful, has it all together, is all dialed in. Everyone looks happier, healthier, more fulfilled. We are, we imagine, the only failures left in the world and we don’t want to share our current experiences lest we be judged. We want to hide that failure away and not tell anyone.
There is more to be gained by reaching out to others, your community, friends and family who are have been successful even, than you might realize. Most people have been there. And there are more people who believe in you than you realize. If you have a partner – a significant other – you might find that their support in these times is the golden salve, it’s the thing that says “it’s ok, we’ll figure this out.” They are your dance partner. Or your community is your dance partner. Your world. It is a dance. And this is just part of it.
This is the antithesis to the pride we felt earlier. It’s the bottom of the roller coaster. We start cursing our blatantly prideful hubris. Pride goeth before the fall, we tell ourselves. Such is karma! But this is just looking for a reason to hate on ourselves – to be that inner judgmental critic to be the mean boss to ourselves who punishes us for messing up. The truth is though, it doesn’t help a thing. In fact, it only hurts and will lead us to other possibly more self-destructive behaviors.
So the thing to do is look lovingly at yourself and say ‘it’s cool, it’s ok, we’ll work it out.’ That thing about being the one who has to get up in the morning and look upon your half finished mess of a masterpiece? You also have to be the one to put your arms around your own shoulders, to lift your own chin up, to push aside the social constructs of what ‘success’ is, and keep moving forwards. That’s the best, the very best thing you can do for yourself.
Fear is the mind-killer, fear is the little death, to quote Dune. Fears: we all have them. These mental constructs are a deeply ingrained part of our social conditioning. Having or not having enough. Losing that which we do have. Running out. Failing. Limits to our own success. There’s a lot of people who have written and spoken at length about money psychology and the mental ceilings we create to limit our own success. I highly recommend seeking some of them out if only to shift the perspective from ‘how did I fuck up’ to ‘how can I make this work’.
Beyond that though, when it comes to the moment – the NOW – it’s important to always be looking upwards and downwards at the same time. Keep your eye on the prize as well as the defeat. Want a life and lifestyle that allows you to create your art? Focus on that. And focus on what it might look like otherwise. And then continue to arrange your life in such a way that allows for that dream you are moving towards.
If in that flow, there’s a thing that seems like a pit, see how you can turn THAT into gold. What’s the emotional content? How do you find inspiration there. And so on. Be patient with yourself and what you’ve done. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Being an artist is a long-tail game. We are alchemists: turning raw materials into gold. Life gives you endless raw materials to work with (to put it the nicest way I can think of) and it really is up to us to churn it into something MORE.
It’s all just grist for the mill, to quote Ram Das.
There’s no magic button. If we experience hurt or pain or failure, it’s best to feel it all the way to its deepest core. Read about the lives of other artists, musicians, and writers – the failures in every person’s life are many while the accomplishments, sometimes, are few. This is why the accomplishments stand out so much to us, when we make it. But be warned: there is no real making it. There is no ‘end goal’. There’s no moment of true security or stability. Everything is built interrelationally and the only stable and secure thing we can expect is CHANGE. So be willing to change – directions, gears, perspectives, goals, outcomes.
If you fail at something, it’s ok. I’ll be the first to tell you: I’ve failed so many times. It’s part of life. Often though, we only think it’s failing because we have these preconceived notions of success. The same is true for success. Success too is a social construct. Next time around, I think I’ll give a few words to that aspect of our artistic lives.
In any case, failures and successes bleed into the other on this continuum. It’s best to just keep moving forwards, creating the biggest, boldest, most beautiful vision you an imagine.